Lake Austin Spa Resort’s past includes hunters, nudists, rodeo clowns.

4:03 p.m Thursday, June 8, 2017 Lifestyle
American-Statesman Staff
A mother and daughter duo stroll through the on-site organic garden at Lake Austin Spa Resort. Contributed by Ryann Ford

Cindy Present was raised on the banks of Lake Austin.

In the early 1960s, her parents ran Lake Austin Lodges, a 10-room fishing camp that offered water-skiing, boating, sailing and swimming as well as hiking and access to deer and turkey hunting.

“They used to have a water-ski jump right in front of the property,” she said, recalling the cold jolt the lake would provide on hot summer days. “That’s part of what gave me my love for water-skiing and eventually becoming a competitive water-skier.”

These days, Present is still playing on those same banks as activities director and historian of Lake Austin Spa Resort, a wellness resort located 30 minutes from downtown Austin in the same spot where Lake Austin Lodges used to be. Every day, Present commutes to work via paddleboard.

“I have roots in growing up on a lake, being born and raised on a lake and on a property that people have always escaped to for recreation or relaxation,” Present said. “I see people who come here now who have those same roots but may not have been around the water for a long time. They’ll have that whole memory wash over them, that love of being on the water. It’s so wonderful to see people come back to what they remember from their younger days.”

The resort continues to receive international acclaim — it was recently named the No. 6 wellness retreat in the world by Conde Nast Traveler and a Top 10 spa in the Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards — but connecting guests to the water remains a priority. As the resort celebrates 20 years since it was purchased by two best friends with a transformative vision, we take a look at the property’s colorful past and place as an Austin institution.

Lake Austin Lodges, which first opened in the late 1940s, was a popular getaway for Central Texans that featured 10 guest rooms and 36 boat slips. There was a pool with snack bar and a restaurant that promoted its dining experience as “an occasion” that included top-grade steaks. At night, there was live music and dancing.

In the early 1970s, the business changed hands — and lost clothes — when it was briefly acquired by the Sunshine Nudist Camp. Later in the 1970s, it became the Steiner Ranch Rodeo Camp, a working cattle ranch with a bull-riding school that housed cowboys and rodeo clowns from around the country.

In November 1978, the property became the Bermuda Inn, Reducing Resort, which offered itself as a place “where you can lose up to a pound a day, the fun way.” Guests received trophies for losing weight at 25- and 50-pound milestones; there was even an exercise cassette tape put out by the resort featuring tunes such as Shel Silverstein’s “Diet Song.”

Eventually, it was replaced by Lake Austin Resort, which focused less on quick weight loss and more on getting guests to embrace long-term, healthy lifestyles; it was renamed Lake Austin Spa Resort in 1994.

Then in 1997 two best friends, Michael McAdams and William Rucks, had a vision that this special place on the lake could be even more and purchased the property. They started using words like “luxury” and “destination spa” and backed them up with the addition of the 25,000-square-foot LakeHouse Spa in 2004.

“I find it wonderful to look at our growth over the years and see where we’ve come,” said Janis Clapoff, managing director of Lake Austin Spa Resort. “We’ve come from being ‘Green Acres,’ the TV show, to rating No. 6 in the world in Conde Nast Traveler. It’s a fabulous trajectory.”

You certainly wouldn’t know today that rodeo clowns used to roam these grounds.

The property is meticulously maintained with nods to simple pleasures, such as hammocks around every corner. There’s a sprawling organic garden where herbs are plucked for both meals and spa treatments, and the standard uniform no matter where you are on the property is a bathrobe.

“We have politicians and musicians and celebrities and authors. Everybody’s just the same,” Clapoff said. “Nobody really notices because everybody’s wearing a bathrobe. People just make connections with other people because they happen to be there at the same time, not because they’re celebrities.”

Typically guests book all-inclusive packages that include accommodations in one of the 40 lakeside guestrooms, three meals a day and unlimited fitness activities. Spa treatments are also sometimes included, depending on the package.

Agnes Enright, 86, spent a week at the resort in May with her two daughters and granddaughter. During the day they’d take meandering walks and sample the more than 20 fitness activities on offer such as gentle yoga, canoeing and Hydrobiking. In the evening they’d dine together — executive chef Stéphane Beaucamp’s French-inspired healthy dinner options include pan-seared scallops with house-smoked pork belly and sauteed striped bass with butternut squash puree — then talk for hours on the porch.

“Our accommodations were right next to each other, so basically we moved our furniture from one patio to the other and we just hung out,” said Enright, who is from Boulder, Colo.

About 75 percent of guests come from Texas, and the remaining 25 percent are out-of-state visitors coming from places like New York, Louisiana and California, Clapoff said. She said it’s rare that anyone leaves the property to explore Austin once they’ve arrived.

“The concentration is on your health, your mind, your body while you’re here. Concentration on food is very important. We have gourmet health food in smaller portions — if you’re coming here for steak and potato dinners, you’re in the wrong place,” Clapoff said. “We try to concentrate on the fact that there’s serenity and relaxation. Sleeping well is important, waking up early, hiking, taking part in all of the pieces that we have to offer to give you a complete feeling of feeling good. Wellness is about taking all the components together and watching that work for you. That’s what we stress that we have to offer, but it’s not strict, and nobody’s watching that you’re partaking in everything.”

No matter what amenities the resort offers, it’s the water that resonates the most.

“As soon as you see the water, before you even get to the gates of the property, there’s an aha moment of connection and serenity that water does to people,” said Clapoff, adding that the resort recently added an option that allows guests to arrive via luxury water taxi instead of by car. “From the moment I stepped on the property to right now, I feel like I belong here.”

For Present, accepting a job offer that allowed her spend time in the water where she grew up — and to share her love of it with others — was, well, like coming home.

“My passion and drive is to encourage and inspire people to get out and be connected to the outdoors for total well-being. To have that opportunity right here, in my own backyard on a property I grew up on … this is too good to be true,” Present said. “Our guests still cherish the fact that people have been coming here for 50, 60 years now and enjoying the same waterway.”

In honor of its relationship with the water, Lake Austin Spa Resort is celebrating “100 Days of Blue” with water-themed classes and spa treatments through Labor Day. Present said the healing qualities of water and the science behind why it resonates so much with people, just like it has with her since she was a child, will continue to be a focus at the resort.

“Probably half the time I end up on the water with people doing private sessions and it no longer becomes about the paddling, moving the boat or the paddleboard. There’s been significant moments where I’ve sat on the water with somebody and cried. They are moved to tears by what they’re currently working through or things that happened in the past,” Present said. “It’s not about the paddle anymore. It’s about what’s moving around in their minds and their hearts and their souls and stirring them to a whole new level. That’s what I love — what the water does to people.”

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